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NEW DAY SATURDAY

Tropical Storm Florence Causing Catastrophic Flooding; Manafort Pleads Guilty, Will Cooperate In Russia Probe; Woman Accuses Kavanaugh Of Assault In Letter To Senator; Hundreds Rescue From Flooding In New Bern, NC; Trump: 'No Way' Revised Puerto Death Toll Is Accurate; Officer Helps Others As His Own Home Burns After Gas Explosions. Aired 7-8a ET

Aired September 15, 2018 - 07:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[07:00:00] CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR: You can imagine. I mean, they talk about this is emotional for them, as well. The things they see, the things they do. And to still have something like that happen where they don't survive after the effort they gave. It's very hard to take in for them. Keep the first responders, certainly, in your mind as we watch the storm continue to come on shore today.

And if you do want to help people who are impacted by Hurricane Florence, there are ways to donate. You can give blood, you can get in touch with charities that responding to the event. Just visit CNN.com/impact. We have ways there that you can help, and thank you for doing so.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The wind is whipping stronger than it has in the last 24 hours.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The eye did make landfall in Wrightsville Beach, about six miles from where I am, with a wind speed of about 90 miles per hour.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PAUL: We are just now hitting the -- just about the 24-hour mark from where this storm hits in -- you heard there, Wrightsville Beach. A -- Wilmington Beach, rather -- in Wilmington. And now, we're trying to figure out exactly what is left of this storm. A third of it is still in the water, as you can see there by the radar. And guess who's there to check it all out for us and keep us posted. I'm Christi Paul reports from the studio. Victor Blackwell is there in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. And you've been experiencing a lot of different weather spin the last couple of hours that you've been out there.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Christi. Usually, the wind is picking up. The rain is continuing. The headline this hour: First light and the lifting of curfews here in Myrtle Beach nearby in Conway and across Horry County here in South Carolina. People's first opportunity to see if there's been any damage that's been caused by the speed of the winds overnight that have really picked up over the last several hours. But of course, the big headlines out of this story, out of this storm so far, made in North Carolina. 780,000 of the more than 900,000 power outages are in North Carolina.

Of course, you mentioned at the top of the last hour, two of the five people that have been killed in this storm there in Wilmington; a mother and her infant were killed when a tree fell onto their house. Also, there was a 77-year-old man in Kingston, North Carolina, who went to check on his hunting dogs, his family says, the wind knocked him over. There was a woman in Hampstead who suffered a cardiac arrest, and when authorities tried to get to her, there were trees in the road, and they couldn't reach her.

And also a man in Lanier County -- or Lenore County, I should say, who was electrocuted when he was trying to plugin some power chords. Now, five deaths attributed to Florence, now a tropical storm. I want to start this hour with Nick Valencia who's moved inland here in South Carolina. He started the morning in Myrtle Beach, now has moved across 501 into Conway, near one of the rivers that authorities are most concerned about. Of course, all the flooding that is in North Carolina is going to come through those rivers into the state, making this a threat over the next several days. Nick, what are you seeing there and what are you hearing from officials?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we're about 20 miles inland as you mentioned, Victor, in Conway, South Carolina -- an area that according to emergency managers is more prone to flood than Myrtle Beach. So, we wanted to come to the river to check out the water levels and see just what we are dealing with. And this is the first time that we've seen daylight today, and this is the river here.

This is the Waccamaw River, a tributary of one of the lakes, local lakes here in South Carolina. And as you deal with the wind there in Myrtle Beach, the story here in Conway is really the steady rain that's been falling, which is why emergency managers are very concerned. They're doing exactly what we're doing this morning and traveling throughout the area, trying to find any local flooding to see if anyone needs any help; if anyone's in any dangerous type of situation.

We mentioned the curfew. The 7:00 a.m. curfew that was just lifted. The only cars on the road besides our own were police vehicles going around, seeing if there was any damage. We have yet to see any significant damage, which I think that's the story of the day here in South Carolina, just how lucky this state got compared to its neighbor, the North Carolina.

The headlines there, the five people that died, the situations, the major flooding situation that's our colleague, Diane Gallagher, is dealing with there. She's doing just absolutely terrific reporting all week long. Here, though, it is just the rain here. The steadied fall of rain, this is perhaps the most that we've seen all morning long.

Really, the last couple of days. There was a lot of nervousness here, and we don't want to underscore or underestimate just how nervous officials were throughout the week. This was anticipated to land as a Category 4 hurricane. By midweek, the trajectory of that hurricane had turned south, putting Myrtle Beach and the surrounding Horry County area in its crosshairs -- an area that has used to -- become used to, especially over the last couple of decades, used to hurricanes and severe weather.

Even the most seasoned hurricane veteran resident here got nervous and started to make an exit. We saw a lot of evacuations on Highway 501, that main (INAUDIBLE) that connects Myrtle Beach to Conway. Hundreds of cars streaming out, traveling, trying to get to safer areas like Tennessee, neighboring Florida. I even heard from a woman who said she was going as far away as West Virginia.

Right now, though, residents dodged a bullet. They are dealing with this rain, though -- a rain that could cause major flooding in the days to come. In fact, the Myrtle Beach mayor saying cresting is expected to happen in the next three to five days. Victor?

[07:05:47] BLACKWELL: All right. Nick Valencia for us there in Conway, just a few miles away. And the South Carolina Governor, Henry McMaster, says even further inland he's concerned about the flooding as the days continue after the majority of the storm, the worst of it, jogs west and heads north. We'll check in with Chad Meyers for the path of the storm moving forward. I have on the line with us now, Mark Kruea, he's the PIO, Public Information Officer for Myrtle Beach. Mark, good morning to you. We spoke yesterday, and you had some pretty good reports. Give us an idea of overnight what happened, if you got any major calls for help.

MARK KRUEA, PIO, MYRTLE BEACH (via Telephone): Yes, thank you very much. Yes, we -- this would be a near miss for Myrtle Beach. Unfortunately, North Carolina took the brunt of that. We're still getting some of the back side of this very slow-moving storm right, but no new problems overnight. Very minor damage. We had about 60 reports of trees down, or a light pole down, something like over the last couple of days. So, we are in remarkably good shape here. If the weather cooperates, our crews will get out and begin to set things right today. But as we discussed all weekend, this was to be a direct hit for Myrtle Beach, and the storm just moved to the north and struck North Carolina instead.

BLACKWELL: You said there were some minor reports. Were there any injuries reported?

KRUEA: I am not aware of any injuries here in the Myrtle Beach Area. On the back side of the storm, we may get a little bit of beach erosion. We may get some additional wind here this morning. Again, we've got a beach re-nourishment scheduled to start -- actually, that was scheduled to start last Monday. So, it will begin as soon as Florence moves on. We'll get brand new beach here along the coast.

BLACKWELL: So, the winds have picked up pretty significantly over the last several hours. And I know in our last conversation that that would have been a point at which even if there were calls that it would be unsafe to send us on crews. Have you reached that point? Are officers, are first responders able to drive to locations in this wind if they're called?

KRUEA: I can speak for Myrtle Beach, and yes, we've been able to respond to calls. The winds on the back side of the storm are always a little bit surprising. The front side goes through, get near the eye, and you think that was a whole storm. And then the backside smacks you in the face. But yes, our police and our fire folks have been able to get out and about even in this weather.

BLACKWELL: There are a couple of businesses around Myrtle Beach, driving around, that have some pretty stern messages spray painted for looters. There's one bar that I saw that had on the plywood "looters will be shot." Have there been any report of looting across Myrtle Beach?

KRUEA: No. Fortunately, we've not had any report of looting. People have been on their tiptoes, if you will. They've been highly sensitive. So, we've had reports of suspicious activity, but it may just be that people are overly sensitive right now. So, we've not had any reports of looting. And folks have obeyed the curfew, as you've mentioned.

BLACKWELL: Yes, the curfew lifted two to three minutes ago at 7:00 a.m. Do you expect there will be another curfew tonight at 7:00 p.m.?

KRUEA: I think that's a possibility. I would say, in all likelihood, yes, won't know until our crews get out and have a change to drive around the city and see what the damage is. Again, we're very pleased here. We're very sorry for North Carolina, and the flooding that's going to come to this corner of South Carolina the next few days, will put maybe a bigger story for us than the storm.

BLACKWELL: Yes. So, the first couple of chapters of this story are looking pretty good for Myrtle Beach. Mark Kruea, thanks so much for spending a couple of minutes with us this morning.

KRUEA: You're welcome. Everybody, be safe.

BLACKWELL: Absolutely. You, too and all the folks you work with here in Myrtle Beach. Let's go to Chad Meyers now, to Severe Weather Center. Chad, we've had stronger winds, we've had some gusts here, the rain is picked up in the last couple of minutes. So, what's happening here in Myrtle Beach over the next few hours and give us the trajectory of the storm moving throughout the day.

CHAD MEYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: You are near the center, Victor, and unfortunately, the devastation is happening 100 miles north of you. So, yes, you're going to get winds to 45 or 50, but the beach erosion, the houses that won't be here anymore, it's happening just to the north here. Here's Oak Island, where we were a couple of days ago, all the way up here, we have reporters all the way up the string of islands. Jacksonville flooding. Some places, almost 30 inches of rainfall trying to run back downhill.

[07:10:22] Even in Conway, where Nick Valencia just was, where he was standing, will be 11 feet higher than what he's looking at right now in three days. Record flooding at the Waccamaw River in Conway. It's not there yet. The water's here and it has to get here. And so, the water is still coming up, the wind is still blowing in, everywhere that you see white, that's 20 inches of rain or more already. And if you noticed, that's where it's still raining. And that's where

the continued flash flooding, flash flood emergencies will be going on. I'm not saying you may see 30 or 40 mile-per-hour winds for most of the day there, but truly, the way the storm has setup, is that the moisture has been in the Gulf of Mexico and also coming up here across the gulf stream, the warm water is still here. We talked about the upwelling and the water is going to cool off.

Well, at this gulf stream, water coming out of the gulf, around Florida, back up here -- this gulf stream remains warm. That's where you're going to get the convection, and then that convection, that stormy weather rolls on up into North Carolina. It simply won't move. The same places have seen all of this water, and the same places, we'll see more water. Even Wilmington could get another foot of rainfall just to the north and east of the eye, and that's typical. The west of the eye, not as bad. The east of the eye, always the worst side of the storm. And that's where we are right now. And it's not going to change.

This is 18-hours-worth of a forecast radar. This is what the radar should look like for the next 18 hours. And the rain continues in the same place. Yes, Victor, you'll get some rain, you'll get some wind, but the blasting, the true devastation, is occurring right now in North Carolina.

BLACKWELL: Chad, thank you so much. And as I give it back to Christi, I want to just reiterate something that we heard from our crew a couple of minutes ago that back half of the storm and also the flooding that's coming really could be the greater challenges for not just Myrtle Beach and Horry County but all of South Carolina. You know, it's difficult to over-estimate that the true dangers in this storm for this part of it -- of the story could be the continued flooding and people coming out.

Now, that, you know, expectations of a worse storm were not fulfilled, that the curfew has been lifted, or people coming out at first light to assess the damage. And this is when with the growing winds, some of those trees can be challenged, that people can be hurt by the saturated ground here and some of the dangers that are still to come over the next 24 to 36 hours and beyond, Christi. So, with that, I'm going to toss it back to you.

PAUL: Yes, a very good point to make, because when those waters come up, sometimes they come up very, very quickly. And they're so strong, you just don't know what you're dealing with there. And if you take a look at that radar, you know it's swirling but its swirling in the same place; it is just not moving. Thank you, very good reminder, Victor.

If you want to help those people who are impacted by Hurricane Florence, by the way, I know that sometimes it can be confusing to figure out where do I give my money, where do I donate, where do I give my time? You can give blood, you can get in touch with charities that are responding. We want to help you do so. Visit CNN.com/impact. We have ways mapped out there for you to help with what works best for you. And thank you for checking that out. You know, in just a little more than 90 minutes from, we're expecting

an update from FEMA officials on Tropical Storm Florence. The agency leader, Brock Long, meanwhile is under some growing scrutiny this morning. The Wall Street Journal reporting the White House has considered getting rid of Long; he's being investigated for alleged misused of government cars. The paper says, Chief of Staff, John Kelly, however, has decided to keep Long, at least until the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general issues a final report there. Now, Long contends he will fully cooperate in this probe. DHS, meanwhile, tells CNN it's fully focused on preparing for responding to and recovering from Hurricane Florence, and the storms in the Pacific.

[07:14:22] Well, straight ahead, a sexual assault claim could leave Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh's nomination in a bit of limbo. We'll talk to you about what we've learned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PAUL: Well, Tropical Storm Florence is tearing through the Carolinas as we speak here, but we're going to have more on that storm in just a few minutes. But there's another big story we're morning, of course. This huge win, it seems for the Russian special. Former Trump Campaign Chairman, Paul Manafort, stood before a federal judge yesterday, and he said three very important words, "I plead guilty." Now, as part of this plea deal, Manafort's going to cooperate with the special counsel's Russia probe. Here's CNN's Sara Murray.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SARA MURRAY, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort striking a plea deal and agreeing to cooperate with the Justice Department and Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Manafort pleaded guilty in Washington, D.C., Friday to one count of conspiracy against the U.S., and one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice. That's after attempts to tamper with witnesses, according to court filings. Manafort, agreeing to cooperate fully, truthfully, and completely on any and all matters the government deems relevant, according to the plea agreement.

Now, it's still unclear what prosecutors want from Manafort. But the agreement requires him to turn over documents, testify in court proceedings, and provide interviews to the special counsel. Now, Manafort even waived his right to have lawyers present for those interviews. The plea deal comes after Manafort was convicted on eight counts of bank and tax fraud crimes in Virginia, and was facing another trial in D.C. In exchange for his cooperation, prosecutors dropped a number of outstanding charges against Manafort in both D.C. and Virginia. President Trump's allies quickly distanced him from Manafort's legal activities which were related to Manafort's business dealings rather than his campaign work.

[07:20:13] Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, saying once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign. The reason, the president did nothing wrong. Still, the news is a blow for the president. He has decried Mueller's probe as a witch hunt. That even as Mueller has secured guilty pleas from Manafort, Trump's former Campaign Chairman; Manafort's Campaign Deputy, Rick Gates; and former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn. As for Trump's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, he has also pleaded guilty to charges in New York. Sara Murray, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PAUL: Sara, thank you so much. Julian Zelizer, CNN Political Analyst and Historian, and Professor at Princeton University with us now. Good morning to you, Julian. I want to put on the screen here, so everybody can see something that Sara just talked about. Some of the people who not only have pleaded guilty or been found guilty but are cooperating now with Special Counsel Mueller. We've got George Papadopoulos, Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, Rick Gates, all people here who have said: I want cooperate.

My question to you is: Manafort seemed to be the holdout, he was defiant through this whole thing and he wasn't going to do it. The fact that he now, essentially, has caved, has this plea deal, has said I will tell you whatever you need to know, even though everything up to this point -- we need to be very clear -- has not been about Russia per se. But what does this turnabout tell you about where Mueller, the investigation stands, how much power Mueller has right now?

JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Mueller's leverage is clearly pretty immense at this point. And he's now been able to get a key player in this whole story to cooperate with him. And Manafort's important in two respects. First, he was at the nexus of this effort by pro-Russian interests to lobby the U.S. Government. And second, and the part we don't know about at this point, is he was at the top of the campaign during some critical months for Donald Trump before he was president. And so, Mueller's been able to turn him. And I think it's a slow process, but you see how effective he is right now. And now, the question is what kind of information comes from him.

PAUL: Well, and there are a lot of people and in this cooperation agreement, the language is interesting. He'll testify fully, completely, and truthfully for any or all grand juries essentially about everything. There are some people who might argue, look, this is guy who is, you know, 69, 70 years old; he's going to say whatever he wants to say to save himself, to save his family. What evidence do you think needs to be present to prove truthful testimony here?

ZELIZER: Well, look, that's where all these other people come into the story. Mueller isn't basing an entire case on what Manafort says. He's basing his case on all the evidence he's been amassing from other testimony, from computer-based evidence, and you can be sure that Mueller will check and recheck everything Manafort has to say, and only move forward with any kind of evidence that emerges that he can prove. He sees the stakes, and he sees the efforts to discredit this entire investigation. So, Manafort's word on its own will not be the key to what happens. It's part of a bigger puzzle that we're watching unfold.

PAUL: The compilation of all. I want to point out that Mueller is also targeting this prominent Democrat, Attorney Greg Craig, who was an Obama White House Counsel. And this has to do with -- there's a connection here to Manafort. But the fact that it's a Democrat, does that dilute at all President Trump's allegation that this is a witch hunt against him?

ZELIZER: It could. I mean, I don't think it will dilute it in that President Trump moves forward with that accusation regardless of what happens. So, the facts the ground don't actually matter to the witch hunt argument. I do think what that piece of the story shows is that Mueller's opening up this world in Washington that goes beyond Republican or Democrat. That's really about the way lobbying works in Washington, and the way foreign interests are represented in our capitol and the need for reforms that go far beyond this administration. But it won't dilute the witch hunt argument. Nothing will. He is on message, the president, and he will continue to deliver that message as far as he can.

PAUL: All right. Julian Zelizer, great article, by the way, at CNN.com in your opinion piece. Appreciate it so much. Thank you.

ZELIZER: Thank you.

PAUL: Absolutely. A decades' old assault accusation, this morning as well, against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, is threatening to impact his confirmation vote. There's a woman that sent a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein, accusing Kavanaugh of assaulting her when they were back high school in the 1980s. Now, Feinstein has referred that letter to the FBI. Judge Kavanaugh has denied the allegation releasing this statement: "I categorically and unequivocally denied this allegation. I did not do this back in high school or at any time." The allegation comes at a crucial juncture, though, of his confirmation battle and some questions about the timing of this, as well. We'll get into that a little bit later.

[07:25:37] BLACKWELL: I'm Victor Blackwell in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as Tropical Storm Florence continues to batter both North Carolina and South Carolina with damage stretching across the coastline. When we come back, we'll look at some of the damage.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[07:30:42] PAUL: Now, officially been 24 hours since the eye of the hurricane, Hurricane Florence hit at this time yesterday. Our Victor Blackwell is in Myrtle Beach right now because even though the eye has hit for 24 hours in, and there are still many, many hours for the rain, the storm surge, and the flooding to do some serious damage there, Victor.

BLACKWELL: And Christi, we're getting our first look this morning at some of the damage overnight. The curfews in many of the communities ended at 7:00 a.m. And as you mentioned over the last 24 hours, there have been hundreds of rescues specifically in one community in North Carolina. That's in New Burn, where we saw water rising quickly there. Our Dianne Gallagher has been there throughout the evening, was there yesterday. She's now there with them. I think she's on a fire truck there as they're going around, assessing damage and responding to calls. Dianne, good morning to you. And give us an idea of what are you doing now and what do you seeing?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Victor. Yes, we're not out on that call just yet. And part of the reason why we're at the New Bern fire-rescue station here kind of we're in the heart of the city. We're not out on that truck yet because sort of experiencing the first clear skies that we've had in 48 hours in New Bern, this is a welcome sight not just for these first responders but also for the people who live here, who've been just dealing with these rising floodwaters since the now.

You can see, I mean, we're still in this 7:00 a.m. hour just early and it is bustling in here. We have got firefighters, first responders, National Guardsmen from all over the state and all over the country.

Last night, we had all sorts of people here from New York Fire Department. We've got National Guardsmen who were from again, all over North Carolina. They have been conducting rescues for the past 48 hours since the flooding came even before Hurricane Florence came in.

They been kind of conferencing inhere, doing these shifts but for the most part, Victor, they're not sleeping. They're getting a couple hours here and there, they're going out on both, they're working with the volunteers.

The Cajun Navy who become famous ever since right after Hurricane Katrina. And especially, last year on Hurricane Harvey, you got volunteers, we were with some in Maryland. We met some who were just teenagers from here in New Bern, who got their boat, they registered with the police department. And they had made more than 50 rescues just in a 24-hour period.

Now, look, the National Guard is taking out vehicles, they are taking out boats, or doing what they can to assist with this as well. But look, these fire departments, they're coming through, they're going on, and they're going to be doing damage checks later on today because we do have these clear skies.

Trying to see where the infrastructure is weak, trying to see what sort of damage with these trees down because, Victor, like many places in the Carolinas, there had been a lot of rain before Florence came in, the ground is completely saturated.

So, even though we didn't experience the kind of wind that our colleagues at Wilmington and the people who live down on the southern coast of North Carolina did, we still had some big gusts and that took down trees because the ground was so saturated.

In fact, I talked to some of the firefighters here who are dealing with a lot of that in their own homes. You're dealing with flooding in their own homes, trees down on their own homes, but they're still out there doing rescues when the rain comes back later today, Victor, we may be doing more of those in the afternoon again as the waters rise.

BLACKWELL: All right, Dianne, we'll stay close to you. Thanks so much with that, and we'll check back into the later this morning. Let's go now to David Burke. He's with Team Rubicon, he's on the phone with us. David, good morning to you. We know that you bring in some of those military veterans and volunteers to help in the aftermath of the storm.

Tell us who you have here and what you'll be able to offer the people who need your help?

DAVID BURKE, DIRECTOR OF FIELD OPERATIONS, TEAM RUBICON (via telephone): Good morning. Yes, thank you. Team Rubicon, we have the skills and experiences of military veterans of first responders and we deploy emergency response teams, and right now we've got personnel and equipment staged around the affected area with most of our focus in Charlotte.

And what we expect to bring to the citizens who have been affected by this storm is kind of a range of services from heavy equipment and debris removal to support route clearance if requested and all the way down the muck out and got out of flood-affected homes to get everything all that flood contaminated material out of homes and help homeowners start to move back toward normalcy.

[07:35:11] BLACKWELL: Do you know exactly what type of work you'll be able to offer? You talked about the services but are people now are calling in and requesting those services or how do you get to them, how do they get to you?

BURKE: We're just starting to see requests, there's a partner organization we use that helps match up homeowner needs with volunteer organizations like Team Rubicon and that partner is called crisis cleanup, and there's a hotline for that, that we can -- we can get back over to you guys.

And what that does is allow homeowners to log their needs across the whole affected areas so that Team Rubicon and its partner organizations can respond. But as we saw from the National Hurricane Center this morning, we're expecting to see flooding across four states in the coming days still, so we expect to see the needs, continue to grow from this storm.

Well, after it leaves the coastal areas and beyond the -- beyond when it's -- you know starts to leave the news cycle.

BLACKWELL: We know that you are in these communities for the long haul. You're still working in communities that have seen storms and natural disasters days, weeks, months ago. How soon do you think you'll be able to get to work here in the Carolinas?

BURKE: As soon -- you know, as the previous person mentioned, there's still life safety work ongoing and we work really hard to coordinate with local state and national authorities to ensure that we don't interrupt any work they're doing.

I think we'll have teams out -- teams out working in the areas as soon as it's safe. And from what we saw in the Wilmington area yesterday, the number of downed trees in the wind impact there, I think we'll have teams working in the next couple of days down there.

BLACKWELL: OK, David Burke with Team Rubicon, a group of military veterans and volunteers coming here to be first responders and staying after those first responders. Thank you so much for speaking with us this morning.

And Christi, that's in part the story here. Groups like Team Rubicon, and the Cajun Navy, and neighbors who aren't affiliated with a group, helping one another as the storm continues to pound the Carolinas.

We're just a halfway through this story, and we know we'll last for some time.

PAUL: Yes, and we can see it coming because I feel like the weather has deteriorated where you are just in the last couple of hours from what we've seen. Victor, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

BLACKWELL: Yes.

PAUL: And I know we've really been focused on Hurricane Florence, of course, but there are still issues to deal with, with Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria. President Trump, in fact, still rejecting the death toll there saying, there's no way the revised number is accurate we have a live report from Washington, straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[07:42:14] PAUL: 42 minutes past the hour right now. President Trump praised FEMA's response to Tropical Storm Florence, saying, "Great job FEMA, first responders and law enforcement not easy, very dangerous, tremendous talent. America is proud of you. Keep it all going, finish strong."

And a lot of people say, listen, no doubt they are working hard all with FEMA, all of first responders doing so.

This tweet comes after the president said, the death toll in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria was in no way accurate. Earlier this month, the islands governor formally raise the death toll to nearly 3,000 from an initial number of 64.

So, following a study conducted by researchers at George Washington University, that's where that number came from, CNN White House Reporter Sarah Westwood's in Washington. Sarah, helped us understand what's going on here.

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Christi, President Trump is continuing to deny the reality of what happened in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria which struck the island late last year. Nearly 3,000 people died in the months after that storm decimated the islands.

Infrastructure, many people were without power for weeks and other Americans became isolated from help because much of the island was inaccessible after that storm. But Trump is continuing to claim that the death toll in Puerto Rico is being inflated by his opponents in an effort to make his administration look bad.

Tweeting about this last night, the president said, "When Trump visited the island territory last October, officials told him in a briefing, 16 people had died from Maria." Quoting the Washington Post there. "This was long after the hurricane took place. Over many months, it went to 64 people. Then, like magic, 3,000 people killed. They hired G.W. Research to tell them how many people had died in Puerto Rico. How would they not know this? This method was never done with previous hurricanes because other jurisdictions know how many people were killed. 50 times the last original number, no way."

And just last week, President Trump was describing the Puerto Rico response as a success. Obviously, this is all happening against the backdrop of FEMA's response to tropical storm Florence. Democrats and even some Florida Republicans have been breaking with Trump's characterization of the Puerto Rico response. Christi?

PAUL: Sarah Westwood, thank you very much for walking us through that. A CNN National Security Analyst Juliette Kayyem with us now, via Skype from Massachusetts. Juliette, thank you for being here.

Help us to understand the methodology that is used in compiling these numbers and really the validity or legitimacy of the numbers we're seeing.

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST (via skype): So, these are legitimate ways to count the dead. What's unique here is that it's often not utilized in the United States because we tend to have an infrastructure in which you can count the -- you know, the not to be grotesque the dead bodies. You have coroners who are assessing the dead bodies.

What was clear because of Puerto Rico, since you have a system that was totally eviscerated that people who were counting the dead had to utilize techniques, well-known techniques in social science empirical techniques, data-driven techniques, to determine how many people actually died because you did not have the sort of more traditional coroner's assessment.

So, how they do that is they combine essentially body counts with narratives that's what CNN did with comparisons of how many died in the same period of time years before. And that's how G.W. got to this number.

It's a well-known way of counting the dead. What's unique about it is we tend not to have to do it in the United States because responses tend to be pretty good. The poor -- so it's just sort of a catch --

Donald Trump is utilizing the failed response as a way of saying, well, why were they counting this way, in fact, it's the failed response that is the reason why we had to use or the government had to use new techniques or unique techniques for the United States to count the dead.

No one's questioning the number is greater than 16 or 64 at this stage. It's somewhere between 3,000 and 4,500 depending on which study you look at.

[07:46:15] PAUL: OK. So, what would you say to the president then, who seems to be focused on the numbers really as opposed to just the sensitivity of the issue in itself?

KAYYEM: Yes. So, look, I mean, you know, it's just these tweets are so inhumane. And so undignified, and actually quite dangerous because they're not fact-based. I mean, they're basically saying the response was good because only this many people died and we have hurricanes ongoing right now.

We have to learn about not just how many people died but how did they die. FEMA has already determined that. It has had an after-action report. It has criticized itself, it did not have enough assets near the island. The supply chain mechanisms were off. There wasn't good communication between local state and federal authorities. There are lessons to be learned.

But the president is focused as if it's about his own ego, about whether -- you know, it's 16 or 3,000 and not facing the reality that this was a horrible response in which U.S. citizens died and the least a president can do is give some dignity to the dead and learn so that we can do better next time.

PAUL: What do you think that -- what do you think, Puerto Rico needs most right now at the end of the day?

KAYYEM: So, right now -- yes, so right now, they are somewhere in between what we call in disaster management both our recovery-- you know, the recovery and the resiliency stage.

PAUL: Yes.

KAYYEM: They are still building things to get back to normal. But also, a commitment that they don't build the same, right? And I mean, this is what we learned out of Puerto Rico that they have to build more resilient that's going to take resources and it's going to take a commitment by local state and federal authorities.

But now we're just stuck in this really just morose and grotesque debate that the president started about whether people died. I mean, of course, they died. We have the numbers, they have the bodies. And he's focused on something that -- you know, I just -- I can't get past it, it's just so grotesque at this stage given what we can learn.

PAUL: And what needs -- what still needs to be done, yes. And addressing that as well for these people.

KAYYEM: Right.

PAUL: Juliet Kayyem, thank you so much. Always good to have your perspective and your insight with us.

KAYYEM: Thank you.

PAUL: Thank you for being here. You know, dozens of homes in Massachusetts were just engulfed in flames after a natural gas leak explosion. There's a police officer story here. It's of lost, and it's about duty while he was helping other people, what was happening to him. Stay close.

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[07:52:52] Lawrence, Massachusetts police officer was helping people evacuate after that massive natural gas leak that sparked to dozens of explosions and left homes in flames. But what the officer didn't know was that his own home was burning nearby. Litsa Pappas from CNN affiliate WFXT has more and spoke with him.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

IVAN SOTO, POLICE OFFICER, LAWRENCE, MASSACHUSETTS: It was total chaos -- you know, fires and people screaming and crying.

LITSA PAPPAS, GENERAL ASSIGNMENT REPORTER, BOSTON 25 NEWS: Lawrence officer Ivan Soto was busy making sure his community was safe as dozens of fires broke out from gas explosions, Thursday.

He saw his own home on Jefferson Street go up in flames, but once his family was safe, he went right back to work.

SOTO: We didn't know how many more houses were going to blow up. And -- you know, I knew my family was OK. So, as long as they were OK, I wanted to make sure everybody else is kind of just OK.

PAPPAS: One of Soto's daughters was home from school when she heard the explosion and saw a smoke filling their basement.

VERONICA SOTO, WIFE OF OFFICER IVAN SOTO: While I'm on the phone with her, she panicked and she felt at the explosion.

PAPPAS: Their daughter escaped to the fire but sadly this family lost their two cats.

V. SOTO: We lost everything material which could be replaced, we did lose our fur babies which -- that's -- you know, that's the hardest part.

PAPPAS: While Officer Soto's house was burning to the ground, he was out trying to help other families. He was one of the first responders who tried to save the18-year-old who was stuck under a chimney when this house exploded on Chickering Road.

I. SOTO: We jumped on the car. We were trying to pull the chimney off the car. We just wanted to get it off and -- you know, we wanted to save him.

PAPPAS: But it was too late, that teen died at the hospital, and Soto says, while his family appreciates all the donations and support right now, he also hopes this community helps the family of the teen who died.

I. SOTO: I just want to make sure that Leo's family is taken care of too, and people can donate.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[07:54:46] BLACKWELL: The governors of North and South Carolina say that their major concerns in this storm that's going on today is the water, with the surges, and the non-stop rain. But, one of the mayors of the hard-hit town in North Carolina, says her next concern are potential fires. We'll have her live in the next hour to explain why as our special coverage of now Tropical Storm Florence continues.

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PAUL: Good morning everyone. The Sun is coming up. We're getting a look at what is left there after 24 hours of pounding from Florence here. And we're getting word too from the mayor of New Bern that there are 4,200 flooded homes in that community alone.

I'm Christi Paul, Victor Blackwell, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina where they're really feeling the effects this morning. Good morning, Victor.